Updated: Apr 14
When I was a child, the entertainment highlight of my week was going to the movies, whenever I could sweet-talk my father into paying for this rare treat. Sometimes the bargain I struck with him required doing extra jobs around the home, or taking one of my brothers with me but, these hindrances aside, it was always well worth it.
Sometimes the sacrifice I made in order to entice a brother to come with me, and thereby justify asking my father to pay, meant agreeing to seeing a war movie instead of my preferred Walt Disney-type features. But one war movie in particular turned out to be well worth that price, and would become life-altering for me, even though I didn’t appreciate it at the time.
The movie - I paid little attention to its title - was based on the real life experiences of an American soldier in World War Two who was captured and thrown into a very brutal prisoner-of-war camp somewhere in South East Asia. On arriving at this prison, he found he had been condemned to live in solitary confinement under the harshest of conditions, with no guarantee of survival and even less hope of ever being released.
Guards threw him into a dark, narrow and windowless cell. He could see nothing, hear nothing, do nothing. The only relief occurred once a day when a guard would push a meagre ration of food and water through the partially opened doorway. Other captives who had experienced this harsh treatment in the past had found it intolerable and suffered tremendously until, all pride cast aside, some begged for their release, whilst others lost their minds from the effects of isolation and despair.
At first the man was immobilised with shock and helplessness over his capture and imprisonment. Then, after taking in the circumstances of his confinement, he began in desperation to think of some way to escape from his captivity. Time passed without relief, and gradually the impossibility of escape became overwhelmingly, agonisingly apparent. The futility of his situation began to take its toll, and he abandoned himself to an overpowering sense of hopelessness and depression, believing that only death could bring an end to his suffering.
Although he now hoped that his life might end, in the cell he lacked even the means to take his own life.
Eventually, after the passage of long and miserable time, the prisoner began to resign himself to his surroundings. He recognised that he must either find some purpose in his captivity, or he would go crazy. He began to search for anything that could help make his circumstances endurable.
Before war broke out, this man had lived a life that was very full and useful. He had been trained as an architect, and was employed to design both private homes and great public buildings. He was used to being busy, and was a well-respected member of his community where he contributed a great deal.
After long and deep consideration of his situation, the man decided to set himself a regular personal programme, just like the schedule he had followed in the context of any fruitful working day, back when he was a free man. He decided to spend some part of every day doing exercises to keep his body healthy, and to spend another part of each day keeping his brain constructively occupied by designing buildings in his mind.
The only tools he had were his memory and his imagination. Consequently, for some time every day, in the restricted space of the cell, he would put himself through a thorough exercise programme, designed to develop every part of his body. At other times, he would sit motionless in meditative state while, in his mind’s eye, he began to imagine and plan buildings he would like to build, committing the precise details of each such as measurements, materials and quantities to memory, In this way months turned into years whilst the man continued to keep himself profitably occupied, creating his own disciplined and purposeful world of meaning and accomplishment.
Eventually, after what to any other person would have been an intolerably long confinement, the prison camp was liberated and all the prisoners released. Not only had this extraordinary man survived an experience that had destroyed many others, but he returned to his home town and was able to build the exact designs which he had developed.
My memory of the example of this man, who solely by the choice of his thoughts, transformed an ordeal of utter deprivation into a constructive and purposeful experience, had been powerful enough to convince the young girl that I was, that a person’s reality is not determined by their circumstances, but by how they choose to perceive them, and consequently how they choose to respond. I understood that in all the most important ways, we shape our reality when we choose how to respond to life events, because the reality of man is his thought and not his material body or circumstances.
Later, when confronted by various crises in my own life, I would recognise in that new situation an opportunity to put my long-ago childhood recognition into practice.
"Thou, Brother, art thy thought alone
The rest is only thew and bone."
- ‘Abdu’l‑Bahá. The Secret of Divine Civilization
"T'houghts are a boundless sea, and the effects and varying conditions of existence are as the separate forms and individual limits of the waves; not until the sea boils up will the waves rise and scatter their pearls of knowledge on the shore of life. ‘
- Abdu’l‑Bahá, The Secret of Divine Civilization
In honour of my beloved departed father who spend 5 years of his life in a prisoner of war camp.